When Duane Seminuk signed out of Victoria’s Rock Bay Landing 17 months ago, he vowed to reset his life.
Seminuk had just completed a 30-day program at the transitional housing complex to get his drug addiction under control after escaping a destructive lifestyle in Calgary.
Without any local connections, he checked in to a motel up the road that at the time attracted more police attention than any other address in the city.
“I had nowhere else to go when I first came here,” Seminuk said.
His former residence at 2828 Rock Bay Ave. is today unrecognizable from its former self, the result of a year-long motel conversion spearheaded by local entrepreneurs Ian Laing and Michael Forbes.
Last week, Seminuk proudly showed off the 55-unit rental building, now known as the Rock Standard, where he’s spent the past year working.
In the project’s early days, he pestered the developers until they gave in to his request for a labourer’s position on the site. Seminuk estimates he’s torn out enough carpeting, drywall and other garbage from the building to fill 80 industrial bins and is now in the process of starting his own landscaping business.
“I didn’t expect to walk into a job, but I worked my tail off and I showed them that,” he said.
Laing is no stranger to the intricacies of creating low-barrier affordable housing. Victoria city council and city staff consultation, community buy-in and creative financing all played a role in Rock Standard.
“When a building’s in that sort of condition, no bank will lend you the money, so you have to find a unique way to change it,” Laing said. “It’s a very difficult project to do unless you have experience in doing it.”
Throughout the construction process, Laing and Forbes mentored Seminuk and two other men who were keen to turn their lives around.
In all three cases, the men are now employed and no longer reliant on social assistance.
“If you don’t have anybody around you that’s supportive, like Mike or Ian, the chances of you relapsing are good,” Seminuk said.
Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe applauded the project for providing much-needed affordable housing in the city, and said other motels near Rock Bay could see similar transformations as the industrial and residential areas flourish.
“I think the most important thing is recognizing the neighbourhood needs a mix of all types of housing,” she said.
Laing hopes the Rock Standard will help steer away the prostitution and other street-level crime that have become synonymous with the area.
“Bringing life into Rock Bay is a good thing. It’s not going to be this dead street at night where people linger,” he said.
Forbes admits the project and mentoring process was sometimes exhausting, but said he’s happy to see Seminuk and his colleagues thriving.
“I feel like we gave back to the community,” Forbes said, “not just in building buildings, but in building people.”
‘Wonderful’ public-private partnership, says Helps
The City of Victoria approved the private redevelopment of 2828 Rock Bay Ave. in July 2012 with a focus on creating more affordable housing options.
Although the Official Community Plan designates the area for industrial use, the motel conversion will now provide much-needed bachelor units at market value, said Coun. Lisa Helps, who has been an advocate of the project since its inception.
“I think this is a wonderful public-private partnership,” she said. “We’re getting new housing for people who can’t afford to pay the expensive rents that Victoria is now charging.”
Prior to 2011, the City purchased two former Travellers Inns on Queens Avenue and Gorge Road and converted them to affordable housing units. But the process was tedious, involving provincial funding and negotiations to transfer the buildings to non-profit operators, Helps said.
The Rock Standard shows what ethical developers can do for the region in partnership with the City, she added.
“And it’s not just about the building. Having people who were previously addicted and homeless work on the building that they’re going to be moving into is absolutely awesome. We could take a page out of Mike Forbes’ playbook on that.”